Small Wars Journal

Stop Fighting a War Against a Tactic

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Stop Fighting a War Against a Tactic


Abigail Gage


The United States is engaged in an unusual global war, fighting a tactic rather than an enemy nation. Unlike traditional warfare, it is possible that this war between the US and terrorist networks will not produce a clear winner. The US and its allies have been involved in military engagements over the past decade and a half, costing the US taxpayer an estimated $1.5 to $5.6 trillion dollars. The longer the US remains embroiled in this armed conflict, the less likely it is that such a war ends favorably from an American perspective. While US defense strategy will need to include counter-terrorism efforts for decades to come, it is time to end the war by beginning to reframe the narrative behind the Global War on Terror (GWOT).


In the context of the GWOT, terrorism refers most frequently to random attacks on civilians by groups who seek to conduct religious war against the United States. In using these terrorist tactics, these groups specifically intend to sow widespread fear. Recent polls show that a growing number of Americans feel “less safe” than they did before 9/11.


But by allowing that fear to continue the GWOT or even drive domestic policies, including those on immigration and refugees, the US allows terrorists that psychological victory. That fear has become an enemy in itself. Reframing terrorism in the minds of the American public will be a difficult task. It will require reshaping the narrative around terrorism, from a constant and devastating threat into an unlikely event in our daily lives.


US Secretary of Defense James Mattis may have started this transformation with the most recent National Defense Strategy, redefining terrorism as a distractor. General Mattis is correct to instead focus attention on near-peer nation powers. To fully shift to a new narrative, the focus must stay on traditional threats, including Russian election interference and North Korean nuclear facilities development, which appears to be continuing even after Kim Jong-Un’s meeting with President Trump. This will allow Congress to shift its attention from counter-terrorism efforts to other critical national security concerns, such as military infrastructure and future systems acquisitions. To change the current narrative and move towards ending the GWOT, politicians, government officials, military spokespersons, and media outlets will need to work together. If politicians and media outlets revert to fear-generating coverage of terror events, any new narrative will fail.


Now is also the time to shift away from the battlefield and toward non-military counterterrorism measures by focusing on innovative domestic solutions. The United States is at greater risk today from homegrown terrorists than foreign terrorist groups, actors who operate within family and local community structures. Countering violent extremism domestically should focus on preventing individual radicalization. Such efforts could include empowering influential individuals and communities to lead the effort. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Grant Program has award[ed] grants to state and local governments, universities and non-profit organizations in order to assist local communities in their own efforts to counter violent extremism.” Religious and secular leaders should continue to be trained to recognize early warning signs of violent extremism. These programs, which could be tailored to individual communities, allow flexible community self-monitoring and acknowledge that individuals radicalize for a myriad of reasons. Such programs also acknowledge the best way to prevent a terrorist attack is to prevent radicalization, and the people best placed to know an individual is radicalizing are those who know them personally.


Finally, domestic programs could cost less than expanded traditional measures and incorporate new allies into the counterterrorism effort. The United States’ efforts in the GWOT have, thus far, prevented major terrorist organizations from conducting a second 9/11-style attack. Yet, efforts to protect the homeland have not been failproof. The growing threat of domestic radicalization requires the US to refocus on counter-terrorism efforts at home – regardless of whether it is Islamic or white-nationalist extremism. Pursuing a strategy that shifts away from military engagement and towards stronger domestic policy will save trillions in taxpayer dollars, prevent future terrorist attacks, and help end the GWOT.


About the Author(s)

Abigail Gage is the 2018 Veteran's Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She served on active duty with the U.S. Army, including tours in Iraq and Germany. Abigail continues to serve today as a Major in the Maryland Army National Guard. She recently graduated from the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where she earned a Masters of Arts concentrating in Strategic Studies and American Foreign Policy. Prior to SAIS, Abigail worked for the House Armed Services Committee as a research assistant. Abigail earned her Bachelors in Anthropology and Archaeology from Washington and Lee University.


From our article above:

"The United States is engaged in an unusual global war, fighting a tactic rather than an enemy nation. Unlike traditional warfare, it is possible that this war between the US and terrorist networks will not produce a clear winner." 

Given the two examples that I provide below, do we wish to continue to say that we are, indeed, (a) engaged in an "unusual global war," wherein (b) we are "fighting a tactic" and, wherein, accordingly, (c) a "clear winner" is not likely to be produced? 

Example One -- The Soviets/the Communists versus the Islamists:

"The role of Islam as a source of resistance to Soviet rule attracted even more scholarly attention. In short, it was commonly viewed as the dominant social force in Central Asia and, more importantly, as purely an oppositional one. More specifically, because modernization is equated with secularization, Islam was depicted as the primary weapon "against the forces of Soviet modernity." Thus, Islam was considered a crowning symbol of both Central Asia's ability to resist Soviet rule and the Soviet Union's failure to achieve modernization in this region."… (See Page 9 of the Introduction.)

Example Two -- The Romans versus the Jewish Zealots:

Example: The Jewish Zealots versus the Pagan Romans:

"Zealot:  A member of a Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to pagan Rome and the polytheism it professed. The Zealots were an aggressive political party whose concern for the national and religious life of the Jewish people led them to despise even Jews who sought peace and conciliation with the Roman authorities. A census of Galilee ordered by Rome in AD 6 spurred the Zealots to rally the populace to noncompliance on the grounds that agreement was an implicit acknowledgment by Jews of the right of pagans to rule their nation.  Extremists among the Zealots turned to terrorism and assassination and became known as Sicarii (Greek sikarioi, “dagger men”). They frequented public places with hidden daggers to strike down persons friendly to Rome. In the first revolt against Rome (ad 66–70) the Zealots played a leading role, and at Masada in 73 they committed suicide rather than surrender the fortress, but they were still a force to be reckoned with in the first part of the following century. A few scholars see a possible relationship between the Zealots and the Jewish religious community mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls."

With respect to my two examples provided above (and, indeed, in the case of the U.S./the West today also?); with respect to any or all of these such examples, should we continue to say that these are:  

a.  "Unusual global wars?" Wherein,  

b.  One is simply "fighting a tactic rather than a nation?"  And, wherein,

c.  "No clear winner" was (or, indeed, will be) produced? 

(As to this latter item note that, in the Roman case above, the Romans appear to have been the "clear winner;" this, in spite of the terrorist tactics used by the Jewish Zealots?  Whereas, in the Soviet case above, the Islamic peoples of Central Asia [to wit: not a "state"]; they would seem to be the "clear winner?")